Meriden candidates differ on proposed police accountability board

MERIDEN —  City Council candidates’ opinions about a proposed Civilian Review Board to oversee police use-of-force incidents fell along party lines with Democrats leaning toward such a measure and Republicans and We the People candidates stating such a board is not needed. 

The issue arose in questions from Record-Journal readers after the City Council last month indefinitely postponed a vote to establish a board to hear complaints about police excessive force and misconduct.

Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks told the Record-Journal the postponement was to allow for more discussion between city officials and the city’s relatively new Police Chief Roberto Rosado. Jelks, who is not up for reelection, added the postponement did not mean the issue was off the table. 

With the odds that the matter would come before a new City Council, readers asked the candidates to weigh in on how they would vote. One reader questioned incumbent Democrats on whether the postponement was a way to side step support for police accountability and the Black Lives Matter movement during an election season.  

“From my point of view, fear of anti Black Lives Matter folks never entered into it,” said Area 2 Democrat incumbent Larue Graham, who is Black. “It was done out of respect for the police and the chief and to continue a dialogue. After having conversations with the chief, we respected him enough to continue talks.” 

Area 1 incumbent

Area 1 Democratic incumbent Yvette Cortez echoed Graham’s explanation that the vote on the police Civilian Review Board was tabled to continue outreach to Rosado and his team with a goal of reaching a consensus on the issue.

“Since the tabling of the matter, the Council has made additional outreach for partnership,” Cortez said. “Multiple councilors, including myself, have met individually with Chief Rosado. Additional leadership meetings have been held with a focus on consensus building.” 

Cortez intends to vote for a Civilian Review Board should it return before the council.

“I believe that as public workers we have the responsibility to be transparent with the people we serve,” Cortez said. “I am a 20-year state employee at the Department of Children and Families. As a government employee responsible for protecting children, my work is subject to review by an independent third-party. And while that review process can feel invasive at times, I support the rights of families that I serve to have an opportunity to review my decision making. And I believe that it is a healthy practice for Public Safety officers as well.”

Cortez continued that a Civilian Review Board is not an attack on our police and Rosado is a strong leader of committed officers. She also pointed to her position as chairwoman of the council’s Finance Committee who voted in favor of funding additional police resources as an advocate for wage increases in the employment contract for the police.

Cortez’s Area 1 opponents Republican Nolberto Gonzalez and Libertarian Richard Cordero could not be reached for comment. 

Area 2 candidates

Graham said he will reevaluate the matter should it return before the council, he said.

“I will always vote for anything that creates transparency, protects constituents and police as well,” he said. “I want everyone to be safe at the end of the day.”

His Area 2 opponent, Republican Joseph Carabetta III, said he is decidedly against the need for a review board and cannot commit to supporting its implementation when it is put on the agenda for adoption, he said.

“Meriden’s City Council has a well established and effective Public Safety Committee,” Carabetta stated in an email. “Amongst other responsibilities, the committee is tasked with oversight and implementing accountability. I served on the Public Safety Committee during my previous tenure on council. Thus, I was able to see first-hand the successes of the committee. I believe in the integrity of our Police Department and Public Safety Committee.”

Area 4 candidates

Democratic Area 4 candidate Kenneth Morgan, the city’s current fire chief, is undecided on the issue, he said.

“I am truly on the fence with this issue,” Morgan stated. “People have made this an issue between the police and the citizens. As I see this issue, it is not a police versus people issue, rather I think this is more an issue of transparency.” 

Morgan pointed to the department’s use-of-force policy which contains several levels of review and the internal affairs process which includes protections for those making complaints and officers who are the focus of the complaints, who are also protected within a collective bargaining agreement.  

“My biggest heartburn with this whole process is that there is no transparency,” Morgan said. “Without transparency, right or wrong there is a perception that something could be hidden. Again, I have full faith in the process, the internal affairs bureau, and in the chief. Meriden has an outstanding police department and I fully support them.” 

Despite this, Morgan has some concerns and agrees with City Manager Tim Coon that there may be a problem with recruitment should the board be enacted. But is it a reason not to pass a CRB? “The staffing at the PD is already challenged, with a large amount of mandatory overtime. Is this the larger issue?” Morgan said.

Morgan said he is leaning toward a Civilian Review Board simply because of transparency but wants to see an unbiased board that is thoroughly trained in police procedures and an understanding of what the police face day to day, and the split-second decision they have to make. 

Morgan’s opponent, We The People incumbent Bob Williams Jr. served as Vice Chairman on the Use of Force Study Committee which after months of study, ultimately led to the recommendation of the Civilian Review Board. In a 7-1 vote, Williams was the only committee member to oppose the committee report recommending a CRB.

"If you look at the facts that were put before the committee, which was in depth, one thing was crystal clear: Meriden does not have these issues," Williams told the Record-Journal several months ago. By issues, Williams was referring to incidents alleging excessive use of force. He described the Meriden police department as one whose officers go about their duties with a high level of professionalism.

“This committee performed one of the most thorough reviews that I've ever been a part of,” Williams said. “Any and all complaints were taken very seriously and addressed swiftly — to the point that the Department went to residents’ homes to investigate any allegations — doing everything possible to engage with our residents and in making the process as convenient as possible.”

Williams added that the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, on which he has served on for 12 years, should be the vehicle to address concerns.

"Let's also look at the other side of the conversation,” he said. “We had an incident a few years ago and an officer was relieved of their duty, convicted and sentenced to jail. Action is taken very swiftly when allegations exist.”

Asked if he was referring to the police brutality case and federal conviction of former officer Evan Cossette — in which the FBI, not Meriden police, made the referral to federal prosecutors — Williams said, “Regardless, justice was addressed.”

Area 3 candidates

Republican City Councilor and Minority Leader Daniel Brunet, seeking reelection in Area 3, also opposes a Civilian Review Board and agreed with Williams that the Public Safety Committee should be used while “the court systems are available for anything considered egregious.” 

“Upon attending the Use of Force committee meetings for the past year with the past seven months about creating a Citizen Review Board, I reviewed much supplied data and reading of the final extensive report that reveals that creating a CRB is unnecessary and may create unintended consequences,” Brunet stated in an email response. 

Brunet’s opponent Democrat Vanessa Hutchins said she would like more information and data before voting on the matter. 

At-large candidates

Opinions in the race for two at-large council seats in play this election also followed party lines. 

Dan Zaborowski, Republican and We The People endorsed candidate, is opposed to establishing a civilian review board. Zaborowski said there is no need for such a panel.

“We have no real issues as far as racism is concerned, and as far as use of force is concerned,” Zaborowski said, expressing support for the police chief's leadership of the department.

Incumbent Democrat Bruce Fontanella, seeking reelection to his at-large seat, said he supports the Civilian Review Board as currently proposed. Fontanella explained he arrived at his position after a thorough analysis of the proposal.

Fontanella prefaced his response by stating he did not want to give any indication that supporting a review board means he and other councilors who share that view do not also support the police department.

Fontanella said the review board as currently proposed is “not very strong at all.” The board, if formed, would have limited authority.

“There’s no investigation powers, no subpoena powers and no right to review what the ultimate decision is,” he said, describing the current process for reviewing use-of-force incidents as “effective.”

“There’s nothing wrong with having civilians look at the process to confirm that the process is being followed,” Fontanella said. “The process will give them a fair hearing.”

Republican Ray Ouellet, an incumbent member of the Board of Education seeking election to his first term on the council, has the opposite view.

“I don’t think it’s warranted. It’s not needed at all,” said Ouellet, a veteran Meriden police officer. Ouellet said there is no evidence to suggest police brutality or excessive use of force are issues in the department.

“You do something like this and you take away from the men and women who serve in the Meriden Police Department every single day. It’s wrong,” Ouellet said.

Democratic incumbent Chad Cardillo is seeking election his first full term as an at-large candidate. He said he appreciated the fact the vote was postponed on the matter to get more information. Cardillo, who was appointed to his seat last spring, noted the discussions and Use of Force Committee deliberations predated his tenure on the council.

Cardillo, who said he hasn’t come to a final decision regarding the proposal, said he appreciates that the council’s leadership is having thorough discussions with police department leadership to address their concerns.

Independent Party candidate Ernestine Holloway said she supports a Civilian Review Board. “Because there’s nothing like a second set of eyes,” she said. “Now, it doesn’t mean that the police are guilty. It just means that everybody has a right to due process under the law.”

Pedro Valentin, also running as an Independent Party candidate, stated similarly. He said having such a board would be good “because [that board] will have a better vision of what’s really going on around the city and what it means to make it safer.”

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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